Bothell has opened up its Main Street for retail and restaurants in the age of social distancing. For a block of the city’s traditional downtown, barriers to traffic went up so that tents and tables could take over the right-of-way.
For anyone that thinks of Bothell as a series of exits off the highway, this may come as something of a surprise. The city may at first appear exclusively autocentric. But recent developments along Main Street and an ongoing downtown revitalization plan have set up the conditions for a vibrant neighborhood. Now popular restaurants and cafes can benefit from extra space.
For Councilmember Davina Duerr, Bothell is a natural fit for opening streets to al fresco dining. “We go to Europe to places where cars are not around. There’s architecture here and ambiance,” she said. Now the city is hoping its car-free street spurs visitors and residents to enjoy summer at its restaurants outside.
The idea that open streets could be applicable in Bothell came from a similar project in Port Townsend. “It seemed like a really fun thing to do,” said Duerr. “I brought it up at a council meeting and the staff looked into how it worked.”
The idea was to start with a single block of Main Street, between 101st Avenue NE and 102nd Avenue NE. Over the course of a week, staff contacted transit and affiliated agencies and developed a proposal for barriers and reducing the required permits for businesses to move into the street. “They worked through permitting issues and made it seem very doable. And it was very quick how they said it could be done. They were very responsive,” Duerr said.
With a framework built by city staff, the approval was swift. On a 7-0 vote, Bothell approved opening a block of Main Street for restaurants to move into the right-of-way. Councilmember Mason Thompson liked the idea immediately. “Biggest no-brainer I’ve ever heard of in my life. Already had one restaurant close permanently,” he said. “Every week things are changing rapidly, it’s important to act fast.”
Some of the potential issues are resolved by the layout of downtown Bothell itself. Within its six blocks of two-way grid streets, removing a single block for automobiles is not itself a major impediment. Some businesses on the north side of Main Street maintain a second rear entrance directly onto a public parking area.
This means that the idea is not easily translatable to the other commercial areas in Bothell, which are mostly shopping centers with limited access to large parking lots. Also, while not specifically barred, there has not been much movement for retail stores to move their operations to the street.
Outside of some store owners that were dubious about access, there was little initial opposition to that idea. Even that has declined. “It’s super fun,” said Councilmember Duerr. “People are so craving community and places to safely gather and be distant that opposition has been melting away.”
“And people have been stuck inside, and we just needed a way to rebuild the community and support businesses,” Duerr added. “That’s why you get into government. Build community. In this case, we’re rebuilding community in a lot of ways.”
Unfortunately, open street discussions are occurring in front of a city budget shortfall. The city council meetings to discuss opening the streets were also budget work sessions. Bothell is looking at a 2021-2022 budget deficit of $12.5 million on a budget of $52 million. Much of the deficit comes from the loss of sales taxes from closed stores and lack of home sales during the lockdowns. The city also carries a higher general obligation debt load than many of its neighbors, including several outstanding utility bonds and a leaseback agreement on City Hall. All together, Bothell is in a more precarious budget spot than other cities.
However, Councilmember Thompson sees an opportunity if the city acts nimbly. “Obviously the goal is going to be cut the most with the least impact,” he said. Opening the streets for businesses turns that equation around, allowing a large impact for a minimal cost. “In all of this, we have moved fast and made mistakes. It’s important we’re adapting. Everyone from staff to council is doing a really good job to make sure this is a success.”
But finances are not the only reason to bring restaurants out into the road. According to Thompson, “Best outcome from open streets? People enjoy them.” He points out how much has been lost due to the pandemic and economic collapse. “Open streets give us something back due to COVID 19. People have to be safe. This is giving them something back.”
The reception for opening streets may prompt the city’s first adaptation: opening more streets. A groundswell of support asked the city to expand the open streets to a popular craft beer shop. “We’ve received about 100 letters requesting closing down parking on 101st because we have a really popular Hop and Hound but they don’t have any other opportunities to expand,” said Councilmember Duerr. “I don’t know that I’ve gotten 100 emails about anything.”